THERE WERE no fiery confrontations but there were a few tense moments and a number of promises during last Sunday’s presidential debate hosted by CNN Philippines at the University of Santo Tomas.
The abilities and principles of nine out of the ten presidential aspirants were put to test during the three-hour event, which was held before a virtual and a limited live audience at the Quadricentennial Pavilion.
Former presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella, Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, labor leader Leody De Guzman, former defense chief Norberto Gonzalez, Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, Faisal Mangondato, Jose Montemayor Jr., Sen. Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, and Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo weighed in on key issues including corruption, the West Philippine Sea row, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, divorce the national debt and labor sector concerns.
Former senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the son and namesake of the late dictator, evaded the grilling of the moderators, opting to skip the event to hold a campaign rally in vote-rich Pangasinan.
His absence, however, did not spare him from the criticisms of his rivals, who noted that debates allow people to examine candidates who are trying to win their precious votes.
“Napaka-importante nito dapat nandito ‘yung isang kasama namin. Bakit hindi pumunta dito? Importante ‘to para malaman sana’t masabi kung ano ‘yung programa, malaman ng bansa, ng ating mga botante kung ano ‘yung plataporma (This is very important, the other candidate should be here. Why did he not attend today? This is important, so that the country and the voters know our programs and platforms.),” De Guzman said.
Robredo, who defeated Marcos during the 2016 vice presidential race by a slim margin, said answering difficult questions is an important trait of a leader. A person who avoids difficult situations is “not a leader,” the vice president added.
Lacson said debates level the playing field for candidates but called on organizers to give participants more time to express their views.
Moreno noted that it would be difficult to hire someone who did not show up during an interview.
“Gusto mo bang maghire ng empleyado na di mo nakita, di mo nakausap…para sa iyong kumpanya (Would you want to hire an employee you have not seen or have not spoken to for your company)?” the mayor said.
Among the candidates who were present during the debate, only Montemayor said attendance to debates is not important.
Montemayor, a lawyer and a doctor, said the format adopted by CNN Philippines was not the classic debate he expected and lacked a “contrarian approach.”
“This is not a debate. It may be, well, a forum,” he said.
Montemayor was consistent with his stance about debates as he initiated practically all of the few rebuttals during the debate. He asked Moreno about the $15 million campaign fund supposedly donated to him by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates but the mayor denied that such a donation exists.
To defend himself from the insinuation that he has money-related issues, Moreno showed a receipt from the Bureau of Internal Revenue to prove that he paid the right amount of taxes.
Montemayor also clashed with de Guzman after claiming that there is also corruption in the labor sector.
“You address corruption, sa mismong [mga] manggagawa–may corruption (You address corruption, but there is also corruption in the labor sector),” he said.
The labor leader likened Montemayor to Marcos Jr., berating him for maligning workers.
“Akala ko absent si Marcos. Nandito pala. Wala nang pinuri kundi mga kapitalista at wala nang pinagalitan kundi manggagawa (I thought Marcos was absent. It turns out that he’s actually here. He [Montemayor] has done nothing but praise capitalists, and he has berated no one but laborers),” de Guzman said.
But for the most part of the debate, the candidates focused on their platforms and their stance on current issues, a few of them even agreeing with some of the views of their rivals.
The debate kicked off with most of the candidates vowing to end the practice of corruption. When asked which government agency would be first in their probe list, eight out of nine attending candidates responded with the Bureau of Customs.
The moderators also asked whether corruption had reached them or not and how they dealt with it.
Lacson claimed that he has never accepted any bribe. He added that he never received rewards as the chief Philippine National Police.
“Nanatiling malinis ang aking kamay pagdating sa korapsyon (My hands remain clean when it comes to corruption),” Lacson said after stressing that he never had pork barrel.
Robredo said the Office of the Vice President has been getting the highest Commission on Audit rating. She also cited the anti-corruption bills she filed when she was a member of the House of Representatives.
Abella said he refused a bribe offered to him when he was the presidential spokesperson. He also described corruption as “a serious problem.”
Moreno revealed that someone offered him “P5 million a day” but he did not accept it. He claimed that corruption had “died” in Manila and that “limiting human discretion in government transactions would help solve the issue of corruption.”
Gonzales said he never having experienced bribery firsthand. He cited the need to address corruption as a systemic problem since it has become a part of the political system.
Mangondato, an advocate of federalism, said the problem of corruption would never be solved without changing the system.
Montemayor said he fought corruption by filing charges against government personnel whom he claimed are involved in the anomalies in the healthcare system.
Pacquiao admitted that he was offered bribes several times and vowed to eradicate the practice if he wins the presidential race.
“Kaya ako tumakbo, ang inyong lingkod, sa pagkapangulo kasi gusto ko tapusin ang korapsyon. Gusto kong tapusin ang cancer ng bansa natin na siyang nagpapahirap ng sambayanang pilipino, (I want to end corruption that is why I decided to run for president. I want to end the cancer in our country that oppresses the Filipino nation), ” Pacquiao said.
The boxer-turned senator was the only candidate who vowed to prioritize the health department in anti-corruption investigations. The rest of the participants want the customs bureau to be the first agency to be probed for irregularities.
Six of the residential candidates believe the Philippines must not remain neutral on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moreno, Mangondato, and Abella expressed the opposite view.
Lacson said the Philippines has the right to condemn Russia for waging war against Ukraine as one of the United Nations’ (UN) Charter signatories.
“While we renounce war as an instrument of national or foreign policy, it is in our Constitution. We have a say because we are a signatory of the UN charter,” the former police chief-turned senator said.
The Philippines voted in favor of a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during an emergency session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) last Monday.
“The Philippines votes ‘Yes’ to the UNGA resolution and expresses explicit condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine. No one can trust news reports of casualties on either side but 14,000 have been killed since 2014,” the country’s statement read.
Six out of nine presidential aspirants who joined the debate said they were not in favor of legalizing divorce in the predominantly Catholic Philippines.
Abella, Gonzales, Montemayor, Moreno, Pacquiao, and Robredo did not raise their hands when asked if they were in favor of legalizing divorce.
While divorce is not legal in the country, The Family Code of the Philippines allows annulment of marriage or legal separation. F – From reports by Dawn Solano and Nillicent Bautista